Category Archives: Writing

The Gulf Which Divides

“I don’t look for exoneration, though I want it. There is no one in this world who can be both aware of my actions and the reasons for them except for me. Since I don’t pardon myself, I expect no less from others.” -X

I do look for understanding, and if that’s not possible, acceptance. All of us desire to know who we are and that who we are is of consequence to someone.

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I fail in this regard a lot, even as I continue to hope that others will assume no failure of character on my part.

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions.” -S. Covey

If you think above these for a few moments, the hypocrisy of how true it all is numbing. I’m working on it. Honestly, I always will be. I can’t imagine aiming for an authentic life without such reflection.

Most of us tentatively feel our way through our lives, wanting more of the invisible things that bind us, yet distracted by things around us. Awakening to our houses’ solid walls, we forget that whatever else we are, we are not focused on the sublime and unknowable lives of satisfaction that could be ours. It is possible that you’re different than me, and that you don’t get distracted by the volume of “other” that surrounds and confounds me.

Here are a couple of links that help remind me…

https://xteri.me/2014/08/02/09082013-a-list-of-warnings-about-writing-anything/

https://xteri.me/2014/08/03/a-personal-blog-a-personal-note/

https://xteri.me/2019/09/26/the-vexation-of-remembrance/

https://xteri.me/2017/12/05/freedom-of-discussion/

McNamara And Mike

This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.

My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.

This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.

I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.

Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.

While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.

Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.

The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.

My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.

I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.

In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.

Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.

Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.

As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.

Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.

The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.

The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.

The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.

A life lived short of its possibilities.

Slightly Embellished Story

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Someone close to one of the people who has vexed me most in later life wrote and lashed out at me with the phrase “Slightly Embellished Story,” stating that I write stories because I have a need to be a victim and relish the attention. I’ve written about this before and the ongoing likelihood that if you share your opinion and stories, even if they are completely yours to tell, people are going to use whatever tactics they can to knock you into silence. Or, worse, to question yourself.

I took some time to think about what I’d been told. While I didn’t let it pierce deeply, I did examine the implications. Only callous people disregard completely what they’ve been criticized for. We all go blind to our own foibles. I will admit that my brain glazes over when people scream or lash out in anger. I spent enough of my life around that sort of craziness. It’s almost totally absent from my day-to-day life. Those who don’t enjoy such lives simply can’t grasp how abnormal such anger is to most people living their lives.

In my case, I have grown so accustomed to this sort of manipulation that it works in reverse on me. I take a moment and consider what is really going on and what demons caused the person to write those words. In short, I’m appalled but fascinated. This sort of drama propels me to write MORE, not less.

Though the story is not mine to tell, I feel empathy for the person who wrote. They have lived a life diminished by things good people should not need to deal with, especially long term. They’ll never believe that I hoped for a long time that they’d find peace even if they had to build an entirely new life to do it. Gaslighting changes you fundamentally. Protecting secrets becomes an obligation. Ask any mental health professional about the consequences of being around addiction and pathology. We internalize what we cannot avoid.

Even as I write those words, I know I’m going to stumble and say and do stupid things. And I will also waste my remaining years making the same mistakes in the face of people who are not whole. I’ve been less than whole a few times in my own life.

One of the comments struck me as odd: “…you find a new audience to hear the same song/dance…” Which is weird as well as untrue. This blog, the one you’re reading. It’s been here since 2014. The previous blog on Blogger was there for several years before that. I imported some of the ancient ones here; some I edited and reposted later but many are in their original form. I don’t understand the criticism about my voice or stories “being new.” A decade of telling them doesn’t strike me as new.

This blog isn’t hidden. Anyone can read it. I used to allow open commenting. A couple of people with anger issues ruined that part for me.

I don’t post for secrecy. That’s a stupid argument to make. I post so that anyone interested can read what I have to say. It’s a one-way conversation. Unlike social media, no one has to even scroll past it.

Before that, I shared stories without embarrassment my entire adult life anywhere such outlets existed. Things happened to me that I didn’t choose. But I learned to embrace the hard things and talk about them.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll read that I had a lot of family members who didn’t want to hear that we had some evil behavior in our family, didn’t want to hear that I had the right to change my name, and certainly didn’t want to be reminded of our right to choose our own paths.

All families are difficult. Being in one stuffed with alcoholics and abusers made learning to be independent of them difficult. We don’t start out understanding that people are scared of honesty or that someone might discover their dark secrets. They have to realize on their own that people know, anyway. It’s why if I get arrested or miraculously get a DWI, I will be the person saying so immediately on social media. Telling the secrets before they are outed robs them of their power. Most of it, anyway.

I never said I got it all right. In fact, I’ve said the opposite. One of my first blog posts was to point out that we are often wrong. Following that, I wrote a list of warnings about the dangers of writing anything down.

But I’ve been here, plugging away for more than a decade, telling the same stories that are mine to tell.

In 2014, I wrote another post about “Revisionists.” Even then, in 2014, I went through a period in which the haters almost silenced me. Several wrote and insisted that I was making so much of my story up. Years later, after DNA and research proved that countless stories of mine were true, they stopped trying to revise my life story.

As for the rest, I am a victim of some things. I’m certainly not a victim any longer, not for the most part. I don’t live a life full of drama, addiction, and secrets. My life isn’t perfect – but I have successfully reached a point now for several years when my sanity isn’t called into question. I continue to work to avoid people who can’t escape their lives.

Having said all that, that’s how this works: I write, you read. Or not.

If I’ve said something that you know is untrue, with the exception of those I asked to leave me alone, I’ll entertain any assertion that demonstrates how wrong I am. I don’t like to be wrong but I certainly hate to pretend to be right if I am not.

Otherwise, each of our lives is a Slightly Embellished Story.

Though the phrase was offered in anger, it did remind me to be wary of people. They are dangerous when wounded.

 

 

 

 

 

Quick, Change Artist

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This is my infrequent post about what’s been said and written before.

If we are doing things right, we change. It usually happens incrementally and may pass unnoticed. At times, we also change in precipitous upheavals.

Our opinions, our underwear, our hair, and our viewpoint.

Those of us who share what we’re thinking run a much greater risk of what we’ve said being used to bludgeon us later – even if we no longer believe what we once did. In some cases, we never believed it.

Thinking out loud is impermanent; writing out loud leaves a traceable mark.

Even when we’re being authentic and unafraid of scrutiny, what we say and write is routinely perverted into its opposite.

I’m a moving target. It’s not because I’m being obtuse or evasive. Okay, obtuse maybe.

I learn new things. I change, adapt, and surprise myself. One thing that doesn’t surprise me is my ignorance because it is the default state for humans. We’re blank slates. We learn. We unlearn. What we continue to believe is a choice of action or inaction.

If we’re lucky.

I’ve been wrong a lot in my life. It will happen again. I’ll change my mind.

What once seemed so damned obvious is now clouded and obscure. Things I ‘knew’ as right now seem ludicrous. This process won’t change, not if I’m lucky.

If that bothers you or disarms your ability to point accusingly at me, I’ll buy you an ice cream cone. You can either enjoy it or put it on top of my head. It’s your choice – just as it’s your choice to embrace the fluid nature of what we know, believe, and put into practice.

 

 

A Visit From The Unknown

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This is a story written by a friend, one which details a family member experiencing a brush with the unknown…

*

About a ten-minute drive from the interstate, the farmhouse sat on a dirt road a mile or so off the main highway that passed through a tiny community. The house had gray, wooden steps that led onto a nice wide porch with the front door beyond. A few miles further down the road were woods—the best kind for hunting deer and other game; not too dense to navigate but dense enough to provide a good home for wildlife.

It was a Friday night like most Friday nights. She was at home with the company of only her dogs and the television. Her husband was an outdoors man—a farmer and a hunter. He was out hunting that night in the woods close to home.

It was dark out but not yet late enough for the 10:00 newscast, and she decided to get ready for bed before the news came on. She rose from her favorite chair and started for the bedroom at the back of the house. Closely on her heels followed Mindy, a sweet, rescued dog named for the lead female in her favorite TV comedy, and Peanut, a happy beagle. The other dog Jake was with her husband in the woods.

As she reached the middle of the kitchen, something powerful stopped her in mid-step. She didn’t know what it was, but it caused the hair to stand on the back of her neck, and she broke out all over in a cold sweat. At the same instant she froze, Mindy and Peanut froze too and began growling; their hair raised along their backs from head to tail. Nausea from fear swept over her briefly before her legs unfroze, and she darted to the bedroom to grab the gun her husband had placed in the nightstand several years ago.

She had never wanted, much less felt the urge, to use a gun, but she had been instructed on the mechanics and knew instinctively now was the time for it. She snatched the gun from the drawer and rushed the dogs into the bathroom—the only room in the house with a lock.

She and the dogs crouched along the north wall of the small room, near the toilet and as far away as possible from the east-facing window and west facing door. Gripped with fear and gripping the gun tightly, she waited…for what, she didn’t know…while the dogs continued growling that growl that comes from deep in a dog’s throat when it means business and intends to protect the person it loves.

They stayed this way for what felt like an hour when, in fact, only ten to fifteen minutes had passed. Suddenly, the sound of someone banging on the front door and a familiar voice frantically yelling her name broke through the fear that had electrified her and the dogs.

She ran to the bathroom door and emerged to find her husband bursting into the house and running toward her, asking what was wrong and if she was okay. All three dogs were now alternating between barking urgently and growling in warning.

She quickly told him what had happened. He sent her back into the bathroom, and he ran back outside to search the property for signs of an intruder. He searched everywhere—under the house; inside the doghouse, the pump house, and the storage shed; behind the carport. He even went to the edge of the field that flanked the house on three sides and flashed the light into the darkness looking for a telltale sign of an unwanted visitor. After exhausting every place that could be searched, he returned to the house where they double-checked the locks on all windows and exterior doors.

Finally, they sat. Exhausted physically and emotionally. Dripping sweat. They compared stories and timelines, reliving details as they talked. At the same time she was frozen with fear in the kitchen, he was several miles deep into the woods and also paralyzed with fear. His fear was caused by a bluish-gray, smoky light that appeared suddenly; floating nearby. Jake began barking and baying at the light while running toward it. As it hovered, Jake “treed” it as a hunting dog trees an animal. The light continued to glow. At the same time, the man heard the voice of his father who had passed away only a few months before. His father’s voice clearly and strongly stated, “Get home to her!” Stunned and staring wildly at Jake and the shadowy glow, he heard his father’s voice a second time, “Get home to her!”, adding an urgent and forceful, “NOW!”

The man jerked the handlebars of his three-wheeler toward the edge of the woods and pushed the gas lever as far as it would go. The engine revved, the machine jumped, and the wheels spun crazily as he raced toward the tree line to reach the clear path at the edge of the woods. As she, Mindy, and Peanut braced in the bathroom, he and Jake flew down the edge of the trees to bypass an irrigation ditch and reach the relative smoothness of the dirt road. Yanking the machine to the left, he barreled down the road toward the house and soon saw the light from the bathroom window in the distance. He wished desperately for the three-wheeler to go faster.

As he skidded into the yard and slammed the brakes, he cleared the three-wheeler and jumped straight from the ground to the porch. Flying over the steps, he landed at the front door and began frantically beating the door while yelling for his wife. As he and Jake burst through the door, she came running around the corner from the kitchen into the living room.

There would be no sleep that night. Instead, they sat for the longest time comparing their memories, timings, feelings, and gut reactions. They analyzed it over and over for missing pieces and how the parts they did have fit together. There was one fact they never acknowledged or discussed. He had, at some point, wet his pants from fear.

To that point in their lives, neither of them believed in “ghosts,” but, from that moment on, they believed without reservation that his father’s visit to him in the woods that night is what saved her. Still unknown is from who or what.

 

A Meeting Among Friends (Story)

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For the last five years, Rich and Bike took the time to meet me at Blakes Diner at least twice a week. We used the pretext of breakfast to get together. We had no real schedule. Blakes was at the epicenter of  a map of each of our houses. Outside, near the road, a sign proudly bragged, “Home of the World’s Best Biscuits.” We often joked we should sue them for misleading marketing. The biscuits at Blakes were a lot of things, but good wasn’t one of them. Each of us would meticulously order a breakfast plate. None of us ate anything except the hash browns. For purely antiseptic reasons, we doused them in Louisiana hot sauce before eating. The coffee was incredible, though. Each of drank at least four cups per visit.

Earl, the owner, was the cook. He was a retired Navy man. His idea of good food was “a lot of it.” Everyone loved him, and he was often asked to run for mayor of our quiet little town. If he missed a day, his wife cooked in his place. She was not lovable. If a tourist or someone passing through made the mistake of coming in and saying something critical, Earl’s wife had no qualms about tossing an f-bomb grenade on them as they scrambled to escape the diner. The Yelp reviews provided a reliable map to determine on which days Earl was absent.

After we initially started frequenting Blakes for breakfast, Rich casually asked Earl who the namesake Blake was. “I got the signs for free from a surplus sign shop.” It seemed like a logical enough reason for the three of us. “Why is the word ‘Blakes’ missing an apostrophe and upside down?” Earl turned away from his stove for a moment. “I wanted people to look at the sign and have questions. Curious people tend to come inside.” Rich slapped the table and said, “Good enough for me!”

Rich retired as a policeman after getting shot four times in the neck and chest ten years ago. To his wife’s surprise, he went back to college and finished his degree and then earned his accreditation as a teacher. He worked a day each week as a substitute and also tutored a few of the local kids who needed it. Bike, however, was one of those people who could earn a dollar just sitting on a park bench. For several years, he somehow made a decent living buying and selling obscure bicycle parts to enthusiasts and collectors. As for me, I retired at fifty-one. My partner bought out my half of the business we mutually owned in exchange for a comfortable annuity. I spent most of my days walking and reading. I had decided I’d get a new hobby once I depleted the town library book collection. Bike kept interrupting my plan by handing me a surprising variety of great books he found online. While I never saw him reading, I was certain he read voraciously. His vocabulary was stellar, and he loved using words no one would dare use in normal conversation. “Logomaniac,” he’d say, as if the word meant something to us mortals.

Alice, the veteran waitress, asked me, “Hey Kirk, are you going to eat your food this morning?”

“Is it safe?” I asked her, winking.

“Safe isn’t a real thing. This isn’t the Marathon Man, although I would like to pull a couple of your teeth.” Alice smiled. We did the dance of wit every time we met.

“I’ll let you get back to your other tables, Alice.” She laughed. Except for us, there were only two other diners, and both sat at the counter chatting like old friends. In this town, we figured they probably knew each other’s business already.

“Bike, Rich, you need nothing, so I won’t ask.” She placed a full carafe of coffee on the edge of the table we shared, knowing she’d find it empty when she cleared the table.

Bike quipped, “My jentacular needs are indeed all addressed, Alice.” Both Alice and Bike looked at each other as if a duel were imminent before smiling. Rich laughed, but without the habitual large smile I’d grown used to.

As Alice walked away, Bike threw his inevitable parting shot, “Were that your voice would be as euphonious as your figure is lithesome.” I couldn’t help it. I snorted, even though technically Bike offered a compliment hidden in an insult. I’m certain Alice smiled as she departed, though I couldn’t see her face as she moved away.

For a couple of minutes, we alternated between drowning our hash browns in hot sauce and gulping coffee. Like all great friends, we didn’t need an intensity of words to keep us company. Earl hollered across the diner, “Enjoy your food, gentleman!” and waved his spatula in the air in our general direction. We saluted with our coffee cups, another of our many rituals.

For fifteen minutes we gossiped. We’d deny it amounted to that outside the confines of the diner. Our conversations were stuffed with anecdotes, riffs, one-liners, and a barrage of rapid-fire nonsense once we started talking. Through it all, Rich was almost his usual self.

As I stood up and climbed out of the booth, I threw a $10 tip on the table. Bike waited until I was out before moving. Rich also stepped out of the booth and turned his back toward the counter. He took his right hand out of his jacket pocket. In his hand, he held a pistol. He laid it on the table and quietly whispered, “I need your help. I haven’t needed this in years, but I think I’m going to.”

Bike stopped and sat back down as all three of us looked at the gun. “Holy howitzer!” He whispered.

 

Catfish Murders

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Josh stood on the embankment of the fifteen-acre catfish pond, watching the sun touch the horizon. The Phillips Brothers recently constructed this particular pond, and it was still devoid of fish. Thousands of dragonflies and insects flew above it. Now that Josh owned the land by birthright, he was confident that fish would never swim in it. Soybeans were the future for Josh. He’s seen enough catfish and live-haul trucks loaded with contraband to last him a lifetime. It wasn’t his place to judge his father and grandfather for their choices in how best to make money. How much money did a man really need, though?

He could see the Rawling’s house in the distant break in the treeline past the expansive rice field, beyond the edge of the series of catfish ponds stretching out to one side. The Rawlings clan were as mean and loyal to one another as any family in the Delta. All eleven of their kids were adopted. They were the closest neighbors both by proximity and character. The Rawling’s didn’t put fences around their properties. Anyone foolish enough to trespass ran the risk of disappearing into the swamps of Monroe County. Most people weren’t aware that the Rawlings single-handedly funded the Delta College Fund. It paid for college for a dozen Monroe County residents a year, provided each graduate came back to live and work in the area. No one dared break their promise to return.

Josh’s ears still rang with a muffled, high-pitched whine. He reached up and pulled off his hat. His grandfather (who he called Grand-pére due to his grandfather’s vague French past) gave him the hat the day he turned 18. He then poured two shots of whiskey. After they both downed their shots, his grandfather shook his hand and then threw a punch at Josh’s nose, a jab which Josh barely side-stepped. His grandfather laughed and said, “I guess you’re quick enough, after all.”  Josh suspected that his Grand-pére moved to Arkansas to escape the choices he’d made when he was younger. While he missed his Grand-pére, he also felt lighter in spirit after his passing. Some people cast larger-than-life shadows; things seldom flourish in the shadows. On a whim, he flung the cowboy hat into the pond. It lay flat on the surface for a moment and began to slowly sink into the surrounding water.

After a minute of observing the approaching sunset and listening to the muffled crescendo of insects calling, Josh held up the Colt 1911 pistol in his left hand, surprised to see that it had a splash of blood on it. The Colt was a gift from his Grandma Eva on his eighth birthday. She claimed that she had used it to kill two men when she was younger, a story Josh didn’t doubt, especially since whispers of it reached his ears through the years. He had dared to ask her about it once. Instead of addressing his questions, she enigmatically said, “Death is a private matter. I think you’ll find out for yourself if you live long enough.”

He had fired the gun at least a thousand times in the intervening years. The first time he fired it at another person, he killed the man who had already fired a shot at him and missed. The County Sheriff had walked up to him and slapped him on the back. “That was some fine shooting, Josh. Let me know when you want to come work for me.” The newspaper wanted to interview him and print his words under the headline “Local Man Saves Neighbors.” Truthfully, he felt nothing when he shot and killed the would-be robber at the Save-A-Lot grocery store. He was driving by the small store on Adelade Avenue when he saw a young man leaving the store and firing his pistol into the store. Josh didn’t think about what he was doing. He stopped the truck, stepped out, and waited until the robber turned to look at him. The robber lifted his gun and fired one shot. Josh calmly raised his pistol and shot him through the right eye. He found out later that the robber was his third cousin, Johnny Ray Terry. Johnny’s father shook his hand at his son’s funeral and nodded his head. Josh felt like he owed Johnny’s family a little of his discomfort. Being at the service afforded anyone with a grudge to say words or throw their punches. Waiting for other people to do what they had to always led to more problems. As his Grandma Eva would say, “Get down the road as quickly as you can. It’ll save you a lot of steps.”

The second time he fired his beloved gun at another human being with murder in his heart.  He couldn’t muster up regret for either occasion.

Barely ten minutes ago, his dad had looked up from his place at the rough wooden table. The table held a map of the county, a pile of legal documents, and a bottle of whiskey. He looked up. “Don’t point it unless you’re going to kill the person at the other end of the barrel,” he coldly told Josh. He didn’t seem concerned that Josh was pointing a pistol at him. The irony of his dad failing to realize that he violated his own rule earlier in the afternoon didn’t seem to register as he spoke.

Josh did not wait for his dad to say another word. He squeezed the trigger and the Colt, less than two feet from his dad’s face, fired directly into his dad’s forehead. The boom inside the cabin was thunderous. Josh carefully placed another pistol, one taken from his dad’s gun cabinet, on the floor. His dad fired it a couple of hours earlier, outside, as Josh walked toward the cabin after getting out of his truck. Instead of returning a shot, Josh had turned and walked the perimeter road of the property. It didn’t even occur to him that his dad might fire another shot toward his back. In his heart, he already knew what needed to be done. If a man tries to kill you, he’ll never relent if you let him walk away.

His dad slumped over on the table by the time Josh’s hand touched the front door of the cabin to leave. Josh walked across the yard and then crossed the access road to reach the closest of the catfish ponds. Mosquitoes accompanied him on his trek. Josh ignored them. Everything must eat, after all, and suffering inevitably resided alongside survival.

Josh flung the Colt pistol high in the area, and it landed about halfway across the pond, splashing neatly.  He knew it would stay there, half-buried in the sediment at the bottom of the pond until it would be recycled and replaced after its ten-year lifespan dwindled.  Grandma Eva would want the pistol to be lost to time, of that he was sure. Her death six years ago seemed impossibly distant. Cancer tried to kill her for eleven years, starting in her chest and invading anywhere it could. It took a freak accident to beat her. Until yesterday, Josh didn’t know that his dad was responsible for the accident.

After today, there would be no inquiry, no hard questions, and no suspicious glances, even if someone suspected the truth. In quiet places where time slows to a crawl, justice has its own rules, ones independent of the wider world. Josh hadn’t murdered his dad; he simply paid forward the cruelty his dad had birthed by killing his Grandma. Most people can respect such decisions in their hearts. Josh wasn’t one to justify the distinction between greed and love.

As Josh’s ears began to absorb sound again, he could hear the shattering wall of insects making their nightly melody of chirps.

Life would go on, and the fables and stories would intensify, just as it always had in this quiet farming community.

Josh used the wall phone in the cabin to call Sherrif Medford. “Yeah, my dad is dead. There’s no hurry. I’ll be here waiting on the porch.” He hung without waiting for the dispatcher to respond. He didn’t look back toward the table where his dead father slumped. That part of his life was finished.

He would change clothes, clear the table, swim in the pond, and coat his hands with diesel first, though. Finally, he’d sit on the porch in the Arkansas night, waiting for the rest of his life to begin. Josh couldn’t wait for the land in front of him to fill with soybeans and a peaceful life. He was thankful for the promise of the static of a normal life.

Grand-pére would find all this amusing, fifteen years after his death.

Beyond, Monroe County made its descent into night.

 

 

 

 

The Vexation of Remembrance

 

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I’ve used this picture before. It seemed inescapable that I use it with this post, too.

 

Why does someone share opinions or ideas with anyone? Not just on social media, but in real life, either atop the peaks of success or attainment or in the valley of sorrows? It’s akin to attending a reception where the doorman punches each attendee in the face before entry and then demands $50 and an explanation regarding each attendee’s intentions.

It’s always a risk. There’s always someone fearful of the wrong opinion, a slight to one’s perceived reputation, or of secrets spilling out into the world. No one wants an unfiltered look at their heart laid bare for others to witness, even though the total of our words and actions does precisely that each day that we survive to walk the earth. It’s like a nude selfie after going to a pizza buffet. Our choices are plainly visible to anyone who bothers to examine us.

No matter the depth of gauze you might use to soften your sentiment or words, the truth is that each of us brings our baggage with us – and filters which bend our perception.

A few years back, a local writer who is now deceased saw me use a quote of Anne Lamott’s that I had written about over and over: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” It encapsulated much of the struggle he had endured trying to get his story out without bruising other people’s toes. He read one of my earliest blog posts, one in which I described a discussion I had with a cousin, one who attempted to defend the indefensible regarding my alcoholic and violent father.

The writer fell in love with Lamott’s words precisely because of their simplicity and unassailable truth. He said, “Holy #$%t!” when he read the link I sent him. “There’s no market for that, X.” Maybe not, I told him, but if someone’s writing for themselves, market and reception are distant concerns.

Here’s the excerpt from one of my first, and absurdly long, blog posts:

“…Years ago, a distant cousin in the family (who I will call Tom because his name is Tom) asked me what right did I have to talk about another family member’s misbehavior, especially the things that “ought not to be talked about.” He initially asked me in my Aunt Barbara’s living room. We were standing next to the stuffed mountain lion that stood guard there for as long as I could recall. I asked him where he learned the difference between what should and could not be discussed. He laughed when he realized that he was about to say “from family.” I then pointed out that despite the idea that things shouldn’t be discussed, somehow, through some mysterious force, everyone seemed to know all the deep, dark secrets, just in differing amounts. While probably no one knew everything, everyone knew something. I then went on to say that the things that happened in my life or that were done to me were MY life, too and that perhaps people should stop and think about the things they say and do, or to make amends at the point in their lives when they realized that they might have gone too far. Tom and I talked about dad’s legacy and how he and I had come to the point that dad would have been able to start a new relationship with me, given enough time – we just ran out of road before we could run the race. Tom was surprised that I could talk openly about some of the meanness of my father and still laugh and want to hear stories about the hell-raising, fun-filled dad. I told him that I would have loved for dad to have had a carefree life or to have been able to come to terms with his hateful way of drinking the world away. Mom and dad weren’t huggers, and they didn’t express themselves in tender ways. Had they been merely distant instead of angry at times, that would have been at least a step toward normalcy. I told Tom that it seemed deceptive for the older generation to keep some of the secrets because it kept us from knowing our parents and family fully, whether it be warts and all. I still feel that way. Tom walked away with a new perspective about me and certainly a different one about my dad. It was the first time he talked to me as an adult, and it was the first time that it sank in that the behavior that Tom loved in Dad from a distance also made him a monster to me, his son. I remember asking Tom whether it was a bigger sin for me to talk or write about my dad’s mistakes than it was for him to inflict violence on his family? Tom had no answer for that rhetorical question. (Note: this discussion would have been markedly different if I had truly known the depth of what my Dad had done in his life. I would not have been so kind.)…”

Regarding the above note, I included a picture of me when I was young. I edited it to protect the privacy and identity of another family member. The other family member wasn’t at the point in his life where he felt free to speak openly. Not publicly, anyway. It’s unavoidable to conclude that my carelessness in openly talking about “things that ought not to be talked about” probably saved my life, even if family members threatened, shrieked, and denied.

If you are sharing yourself authentically in the best way you can, I believe that silencing your narrative is a loss for everyone. So what if you don’t get it quite right? Which idiot decided that perfection is the goal of communication? None of us are going to feel exactly what we do today when tomorrow greets us.

It’s easy to pick and choose your criticisms, especially of anyone who shares stories. It’s why most people choose silence. Just as silence does not grant consent, it also does not convey honesty.

I don’t sit and spend hours taking the time to write what I clearly label as my opinion to seek sympathy. The stories, the opinions, and the words are mine to share. Hopefully, it is obvious that I’m not sending them as aimed barbs when I’m not. I am a fairly heavy-handed writer and it’s inescapable when I’m pointing the finger. The parts of my life I share are parts of my life, even if they intersect with the lives of others.

Also, I completely agree that we are all villains in someone else’s narrative. There’s no escape for me in this regard, either.

If my stories sometimes seem harsh, it’s only because the fury or depth of what I experienced is reflected there.

Life is both bloodied lips and serene sunsets.

Anyone who reads my posts knows that I have constantly asked that everyone take the time to write their stories in any way that they can. I put out in the world what I would enjoy hearing from others. We are all repositories of stories. Many are joyous and humorous; others are numbingly horrific. They are all pieces of us.

Each time I’ve shared a piece of myself, someone has reciprocated and reached out to share a bit of their humanity with me. I’m always surprised and humbled. It’s both a reflection of trust and an expression of the need to share with another person. It’s fundamental.

It’s also true that sometimes I’m misunderstood or my motives maligned. I can’t control the unexpected reactions, no more than my writing can alter one second of history. Writing about it, however, changes me. It softens the otherwise fall-without-a-parachute plunge that some days bring me.

 

 

Avara Rising: A Story of Beginnings

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Eleanor’s hands trembled slightly as she flicked the end of her cigarette on the edge of the porcelain ashtray. Her other hand nervously clutched the locket around her neck. Ashes from her cigarette fell from the overflowing ashtray onto the expensive table. Her eyes followed mine as I watched the ashes fall. She laughed nervously and waved dismissively at them. “No one knows I smoke. It’s the same brand my mother once smoked. There’s a lot people don’t know. I think you know that now, don’t you?”

We were both dancing around the central question of her life: how did she survive and flourish in the midst of such chaos. My editor wanted me to lob softball questions for the 6000-word piece I had been assigned. To my surprise, I had immediately felt a kinship with Eleanor. Her features reminded me of princesses from the Disney stories of my childhood. I wanted nothing more than to simply sit and talk to her for a lifetime of minutes. Her celebrity status seemed to fit awkwardly on her.

I’d followed her career for the last fifteen years and watched all of her movies. When my editor initially asked me to work on a special story about Eleanor, I had to conceal my enthusiasm. Seeing her first movie evoked something inquisitive in me. I noticed that Eleanor had a small diagonal scar on her neck, below her left ear. Later, I heard her tell an interviewer that the scar was a reminder of her childhood. When she said the words, I watched almost imperceptible clouds pass over her face. I recognized those clouds of trauma. Like me, she had survived a violent childhood, one seemingly hidden from her public life.

On a whim, I turned off the digital recorder on the table in front of me.

Pushing aside my misgivings, I laid a photo on the table. I heard an audible gasp as Eleanor took in the photo. I looked to her face and noted that her expression retreated into itself. I knew the look well from my countless interviews. The photo had pushed her to retreat far past her public veneer. Eleanor was once again the wistful girl in the photo. I wasn’t sure if she’d seen the photo in the 50 years since it was taken.

Eleanor looked up at me, locking my gaze. Tears formed in her eyes as she attempted to blink them into submission.

“So, you know? That day and my story?” Her voice trailed off in a sigh. “Where did you get the photo?”

I sat quietly, out of respect. I nodded. “Yes,” I said, needlessly. “One of the children of your neighbor had a box of keepsakes. I found it there. Finding things and people is what I do. It’s unquestionably you in the photo.”

Both of Eleanor’s hands reached for her locket as the tears poured from her eyes. I could see that her white blouse caught the droplets as they rolled down her wrinkled face. Strangely, she said, “It’s almost me, that’s true.”

“Can I see the picture, Eleanor?” I whispered. “The one inside the locket? I’ve noticed you wear the locket anytime you’re not working.”

She shook her head, a little violently.

I waited.

After a minute, Eleanor reached behind her head and fumbled with the clasp of her locket. She managed to unclasp it and pulled the gold necklace away.

She gracefully piled the necklace on the table near the ashtray, waiting. I noticed that her hand returned briefly and touched the small scar there.

I reached over and touched the locket. I lifted it and brought it closer to my gaze and opened it. Inside, I discovered the face of a beautiful, smiling little girl, one who shared the features of young Eleanor.

“Her name was Avara, a name my mother saw on a tin of cooking oil. She was my twin. As you may have guessed, she left me on the day that picture was taken.” She pointed to the picture of young Eleanor that I had placed face up on the table. “The other picture is of my maternal grandmother.”

“Tell me more, Eleanor, in any way you can express it.” I had forgotten all professional pretense at this point.

Eleanor adopted the faraway look once more as she began to speak:

“It was the early 1980s. My mother had found herself in a life she’d never have imagined, one defined by the birth of two twin girls she hadn’t planned. She shared the lives of these two girls with the most unlikely of husbands, one unlike any she had imagined. She was born in a very small town on the fringes of the state. He had courted her with the most gentlemanly manners. Once she was pregnant, my mother had to accompany my father to the place we called home, away from everything and everyone she’d known. He ruled their lives with a range of abuse. He had studied human psychology through the prism of violence and artfully applied its domesticating techniques with curled fists and cloistered shouts. Day after day of fierce application resulted in my mother surrendering all of her abilities to the whims of this man dedicated to anger.

Each time my mother attempted to put life in its proper place, her husband would remind her of her diminished value. The taste and stain of blood served as a reminder that escape was an illusion. As her twin girls aged, she noted that her husband realized that no greater bargaining chip or amulet of fear existed.

It was on one of my father’s good days that he gave me the scar. My mother was outside talking to one of the neighbors who needed someone to watch his two kids on Saturday. My father overheard voices and exited our trailer. Without taking a moment to listen, he grabbed my mother by the neck and hauled her inside the trailer. He told the neighbor, “Mind your own g-damned business, Robert!” Once inside, he had us all sit on the couch in the tiny living room. Once his rant started, his jealous words became louder and more incoherent. He grabbed one of the four framed pictures on the paneled wall to break it. My mom raised her hand to ask him to please stop. He threw the frame with as much force as he could manage. It flew sideways and shattered on the side of my face. A piece of the glass stuck in my throat. Blood went everywhere. Even as I thought I might die, I welcomed it. My mother was forbidden to take me anywhere to be treated. She used a decorative towel to stop the blood until my father fell asleep in his recliner. Another neighbor, Sheila, put three stitches in my neck using a sewing needle.

For the day in question, my mother awoke on Easter with the idea that if Jesus could sacrifice himself to save mankind, she could at least do something to save her girls. I’m not sure what convinced her that particular day was the day, so to speak. Nevertheless, she rose early enough to use the eggs from the fridge to make colored Easter eggs for her precious girls. She ignored the possibility that her husband might exact his vengeance upon her for wasting the eggs. She carefully placed each dyed eggs back in the egg carton. Before anyone awoke, she crept around the perimeter of the trailer to hide the eggs where her two daughters could find them. No one else was outside that morning. Most of her neighbors had burned the midnight oil. Saturday night was the one night they could all forget their mundane, repetitive lives for the week.

When everyone woke up, my mother dodged the verbal barbs of her husband as she coaxed him to drink his coffee and eat biscuits and sausage. He didn’t seem to notice the absence of eggs on his cracked plate.

While he begrudgingly ate his breakfast, my mother helped us get dressed in our dresses and brushed our hair. We assumed we were dressing to wait for the church bus that made its way around the trailer park each Sunday morning.

“Let’s go outside, girls, and find the Easter eggs!”

My mother camouflaged the fright in her voice. No one except her knew that either she or her husband would not survive the day. She hoped in her secret heart that Jesus and his message of forgiveness would absolve of her of the harsh necessity of that day’s choices. Only she knew that her husband’s pistol, the one he’d held against her head several times, would finally help her.

Avara and I stepped carefully down the old iron and wood-plank steps onto the sparse grass surrounding the trailer. I held the empty egg carton and Avara clutched the single basket we owned. Both of us were dressed in our finest summer church dresses.

As I began to gather the eggs, my mother took a picture of me as I searched the ground with my eyes. She was proud of the camera, even though it was used.  My mother took pictures as if they were made of gold.

Immediately after she snapped the picture, the back door of the trailer flew open. There were no steps there. Anyone wanting to exit had to double back to the front or simply jump the three feet to the ground.

My father chose the second option. His anger propelled him. He jumped the distance without hesitating. He balanced the pistol in his right hand as he landed. Somehow, he found it under my mother’s clothes in the dresser where she’d hid it last night. How he had come to the conclusion that his wife was planning something nefarious is still a mystery. Avara came up behind me as I looked up. My father lifted the pistol to fire it at my mother. Instead, the bullet hit my precious Avara and killed her instantly. My mother screamed in agony and anger and hurled herself at my father. They struggled for a few moments. I think my father was shocked to find himself needing to defend himself against his wife. That hadn’t happened since the second time he had beaten her. My mom seemed to have found new strength as she fought him. Moments later, another shot reverberated between the row of trailers. Since it was a Sunday morning, the deafening roar once again filled the air. My mother froze in shock as my father’s face shattered and a bullet passed from under his chin through the top of his head. He fell to the ground. My mother laughed, a high-pitched and untethered scream of laughter.

My mother grabbed me and pulled me close. She slumped against the underskirt of the trailer, next to Avara. I don’t know how long we sat there. We both watched as my father gurgled blood, trying to speak. Finally, he felt still and silent. At some point, my mother had taken off her locket and put it in my hand. After a long minute, a curious neighbor poked his head around the trailer’s edge to find us. We heard a shout, followed later by more shouts. Much later, a police car slowly pulled up over the curb with its lights flashing. I remember that it didn’t arrive in a hurry. I think the officer knew that being in a hurry in our neighborhood was a waste. The police had come by several times in the last year. They’d note the broken furniture, the beer cans, the bloody faces, said a few words, and depart. It was a story all too common in the South. Even on the night my mother had the courage to tell one of the officers, “Please don’t leave me with him,” the officer took my father aside and asked him to take it easy.

I don’t remember looking at my dear sister. I recall a neighbor picking me up like a doll and talking to me in a low voice. I saw Avara’s Easter basket on the ground, holding four or five dyed eggs. My mother was taken away in a patrol car. Though she was defending herself when she killed my father, the police decided that because she admitted she was planning to kill him, it wasn’t self-defense. I lived the rest of my childhood with my neighbors. That’s how it came to pass that my mother spent the rest of her short life in prison for murder. She convinced herself that prison was appropriate for staying too long within the reach of her violent husband. She missed Avara’s funeral. I never saw her again after the police shoved her in the back of the patrol car.”

Eleanor finished talking and simply sat in her chair. Her regal features seemed to be resigned to the sadness that the story held for her. “I’ve never spoken the names of my parents since that day, either. My mother’s name was Kimber and my father was named Gerald. I took the last name of the kind neighbors who raised me as their own. My real last name was Holloway.”

She leaned in and whispered to me. “Gabriel, do you know the real secret, the one that no one alive knows?” She hesitated.

I couldn’t believe that she held more secrets. It felt like she was in a confessional and I was her confessor. I nodded.

“That day? It wasn’t Avara who was killed. It was Eleanor. When my neighbor pulled me away, I told him that my name was Eleanor, my dear sister’s name. I don’t know why I blurted out my sister’s name. I’ve lived my entire life and career using her name. I’m Avara. I think the only reason I survived was by adopting her name and promising that I’d rise above the thing that killed her.” Once again, tears rolled down her face.

I stood up and walked around the table. Eleanor didn’t resist as I pulled her close and we both cried until time slowed. I knew that Eleanor, or Avara, was transported back to the trailer park all those years ago. In some ways, despite people not knowing it, Eleanor had spent a great deal of her life buried in the past.

Three weeks later, my editor demanded the 6000-word piece for the magazine. Instead, I handed him a full draft of the book that Eleanor had authorized: “Avara Rising.” She had decided to finally come out to the world and reveal the story of the crucible which had formed her. Her sister’s name had found fame in the world. It was time for the other little girl to find her real voice and speak to the world. Like her mother, she’d find the courage to plant her feet and insist that the reckoning commence.

It all started with a picture, an oath given freely by a mother, and a young life consumed by violence. Gabriel could only hope that the little girl picking up her Easter eggs was still frolicking in a nondescript yard somewhere, with her sister laughing joyfully behind her.

Amen, Avara. Godspeed, Eleanor.

 

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